All eyes on Annapolis

Bush: Meeting will show whether peace is possible

At The Conference

President stresses the common goal

Mideast Peace Conference

Annapolis Mideast Conference

November 27, 2007|By David Wood and David Nitkin | David Wood and David Nitkin,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- With a rhetorical nod toward "a more hopeful vision" of freedom and prosperity in the Middle East, President Bush opened a peace conference last night aimed at spurring a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We share a common goal - two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," Bush told conference participants on the eve of today's daylong session at the U.S. Naval Academy campus in Annapolis.

Achieving peace "requires difficult compromises," he said at a State Department dinner. But "we stand with you, at the Annapolis conference and beyond."

Earlier, the president held separate White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In brief remarks to reporters during a photo session, Bush told Olmert that the conference would demonstrate "whether or not peace is possible."

"I'm optimistic," Bush insisted.

But in his meeting with Abbas, Bush showed reluctance to see the United States play a more aggressive part in the peace process. He noted pointedly that Americans "cannot impose our vision" for peace between Palestinians and Israelis and can only "help facilitate."

Bush seemed to be stepping away from a U.S. role as monitor of two important channels of work expected to follow Annapolis: negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement and implementation of practical steps both sides have already agreed on to ease tensions.

This morning, delegates from 50 countries and organizations, from Algeria to Yemen, are to meet at Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy to hear an address by Bush.

The delegates will then break for refreshments at Smoke Hall, while Olmert heads to a luncheon with Gov. Martin O'Malley at the governor's mansion. O'Malley and Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, met during a visit to Israel by the then-Baltimore mayor in 2005.

"It is an honor for the state of Maryland and the city of Annapolis to host this historic occasion," O'Malley said in a statement. "I want to welcome President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the State of Maryland, and commend all parties involved with the peace conference tomorrow for their efforts to bring about a just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

Conference delegates will reconvene for an afternoon of speeches chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As of last night, no limit had been put on the number or length of speeches.

That session is expected to last at least until 7 p.m., or "as long as [Rice] feels there is a good, solid and productive discussion," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Unlike previous Maryland summits at Camp David and Wye River, the Annapolis conference - beset by low expectations - has been cast less as a negotiation than as a beginning for renewed talks between Palestinians and Israelis that the two sides said could be concluded by the end of Bush's term in 14 months.

"I hope that Annapolis will be remembered as the starting point of reigniting the peace process that led to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland. "I think it has far greater implications than just to Israel and the Palestinians. It really is perhaps the linchpin for a much more stable Middle East."

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators spent much of the day working on a joint statement which, at a minimum, was to spell out a negotiating process on the toughest issues for a comprehensive settlement: the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, drawing borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, and cooperative security arrangements.

Rice met with both sides, and U.S. officials said they expect a written statement by tomorrow when Olmert and Abbas are to meet again with Bush at the White House.

"They are putting [ideas] down on paper, they are making progress, converging on an understanding of what they want to accomplish" in future negotiations, McCormack said.

In the Middle East, a senior official of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that seized power in the Gaza Strip last summer, branded the Palestinian representatives in Annapolis as traitors.

"Anyone who stands in the face of resistance or fights it or cooperates with the occupation against it is a traitor," said Mahmoud Zahar, according to a report by Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. He said no one has the right "to give up one inch" of Palestinian territory.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli TV that the Annapolis conference is "a continuation of one-sided concessions" by Israel, the Associated Press reported.

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